I recently rewatched Ore Imo and thought I’d better get something off my chest:
I really like Ore Imo, you could even say that I love it!
But don’t mistake me; I don’t think Ore Imo (appreciably short for Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai or There’s no Way my Little Sister can be this Cute) is by any means a perfect anime, or even great. I’m talking here about an abnormal, irrational kind of love, much like the central romance of the anime itself.
Don’t worry, it’s not that I have a thing for my sister anything (I don’t even have one), and I’m not some kind of incest fetishist either. No, it’s just that OreImo has a strange way of taking me in and pulling my heart strings. Even years later, upon my recent rewatch, that affection came flooding back, much to my surprise. It’s been a few years, and I’ve naturally grown into a hard, seasoned anime verteran. I expected to shake my head a wonder how it was I ever liked this trash. Instead, it clicked with me all over again.
A lot of people hate the feisty Kirino, but she’s up on the waifu mantle for me. And many critics will rush to buy first class seats and clamber aboard the ‘show is trash’ train, but I found it to be far more moving and clever than most other run-of-the-mill light novel series. But why?
My hunch is that it’s all in the characters.
Throughout the first half of the series, you can be forgiven for thinking that the anime and its colourful cast boils down to sensationalist, skin-deep bait. Kirino is deeply implausible on paper – a 14 year old otaku, model, ace student and school athlete who also sleeps and is mortal. Bullshit, right? What’s more, she comes across as a shallow, self-centered bitch right from the start, taking the tsundere archetype and running away with it to new frontiers. Kyousuke is a self-proclaimed ‘ordinary high-school boy’, basically advertising himself as trope on legs. Then there’s Manami, the tranquil childhood friend, Kuroneko the straight-laced, no-frills goth-loli. As for the bother x sister overtones, that’s gotta be a bait that’ll amount to nothing, right?
Wrong. All wrong. OreImo is all about people being dishonest, with others and with themselves. But it’s not just the characters in the show who don’t know what each other are thinking – we don’t know either. The author makes a point of making sure nothing is at appears, and by the end of it, you’ll come to know them as unique and fascinating individuals whose sometimes strange actions are born from honest truths. A little larger than life, sure, but by no means shallow or cliche.
Don’t take Kirino’s outbursts earlier in the show at face value – there’s more to her bitterness
What’s interesting is how this depth is organically explored, because it’s almost the opposite to convention. Take the character of Kirino – normally a storyteller would start her out as a blank canvas, then craft her into a more interesting character through the experiences of the story. Whereas, Ore Imo had all its character development happen years ago, off screen. The start of a love story, dramatic falling out between friends, life-changing events all transpired in Kyousuke and Kirino’s childhood that they have both since buried with their own barriers and the sands of time.
The angry, bitter Kirino and the lethargic Kyousuke at the start of the show are already twisted up into a knot of denial and, in Kirino’s case, unrequited feelings. The rest of the story is then not about them growing, but almost unwravelling the last few years and coming to understand themselves again.
Occasional hints are dropped that make you question the characters words – why is Kirino so infatuated with little sister eroge?
But first, a little back story for those not across it:
A key later episode provides the missing link, how they went from childhood besties to distant co-habitants of the Kousaka household. When they were young kids, Kyousuke was boisterous, confident and the ace of the class in grades and sports. Kirino didn’t just look up to him, she was infatuated with him and he instilled in her an unshakeable personal drive that shaped her adolescent life. As she pushed herself in her studies and her track team activities, Kyousuke meanwhile fell into a rut, quitting running and letting his grades slip into mediocrity. Gone was the person she aspired to; she’d spent years trying to stand proudly next to him only to find that, when she had reached that point, that person no longer existed in Kyousuke. She blamed Kyousuke’s childhood friend Manami for his descent, but more importantly, it made her hate and resent what she saw as the shambling shell of Kyousuke.
Through this history and gradually seeing some of their innate personality traits you can begin to appreciate Kyousuke, and yes, even Kirino. But you can’t talk about them without talking about their strange love story,
The central romance between Kirino and Kyousuke is not just thrown in for shits and giggles; it is an ever-present, looming force from the very first scenes with roots running deep into the characters hearts. To the author’s credit, I’m sure he set out to deliver a taboo love story from the very beginning and had the balls to see it through, even against the push-back from publishers and the chagrin of many fans. The author sticking to his guns and writing his story I think goes a long way to explain why OreImo has an edge that many light novels lack.
-… the author apologizes for being a troublemaker (and comments that the other writers must be sick of him), but says that he doesn’t let that pressure affect his writing or change what he wants to write. He says that “occasionally I have no choice but to change what I want to write, but I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t write something ‘lukewarm'”. (i.e. That he wouldn’t write just to please others, or in response to pressure.)
Throughout this journey, I found Kirino and Kyousuke to have more chemistry than the vast majority of other anime couplings out there – a fiery, confused and chaotic chemistry no doubt, but a real, visceral sense of attraction and tension. Most romances in anime feel like an arranged marriage, an inevitable pairing of convenience between the hero and heroine simply because that’s the way things go. That or they’re the product of a typical harem situation, where a flurry of jealousy is confused for a love story. Many shoujo on the other hand may ham-fist emotion into their romances with comically over the top trauma or ‘edgy’ dark pasts.
Either way, it’s usually surface level stuff you could pull out of a hat. Kirino and Kyousuke however, have a love that comes from somewhere altogether more complicated and rooted in real situations.
This bears fruit in their loaded interactions, where words don’t match actions and actions don’t match their body language let alone their true feelings. Kyousuke’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to defend and make his sister happy are justified by a simple ‘because I’m her brother’, while his front of ambivalence towards her personal life is belied by deep-set forlornness when she goes overseas or they have a fight. Kirino’s seemingly vile anger, is a mask of her own feelings so convincing that even she buys it most of the time. She blushes as she scorns her bother with lines like ‘ go get hit by a bus’, ‘creep!’, et cetera. This aggression is her way of both fighting back her disgust at her own forbidden, incestual feelings, and lashing out at the person Kyousuke has become at the cost of the boy he once was.
Throughout the second season, Kirino and Kyousuke’s interactions are rife with double meaning and subtext that they don’t even fully grasp, creating thrilling tension.
This leads us to the hot-topic tsundere element. Sure, Kirino is a tsundere, and sure, she has the lion’s share of tsun, at times being one of the most gratingly abrasive anime girls to ever grace the TV screen, but you’ve got her all wrong if you think that’s all there is to it. She’s a tsundere who not only can’t be honest with others, she can’t be honest with herself on a level that’s practically self destructive. In the darkest corner of the lowest chasms of her heart, she is in love with her brother, but she is so scared by the thought, repulsed by the idea and spiteful towards the person Kyousuke is now, that the feeling is tied up and wound a hundred times within her.
The thing I like about her character though is that the love isn’t neatly sealed away, it’s tangled all through her, a messy knot of emotions that sometimes gives her drive, sometimes leads her down surprising paths like becoming an otaku, and creates this tension within her that manifests in her tsundere actions. When she’s being bitter, it’s not just a distraction tactic, or mere reflex to embarrassment – it’s genuine anger from that dark vortex inside that even she doesn’t want to face or understand.
-By the end of the story, his favourite character is Kirino, but it wasn’t that way at first and he was just as annoyed with her as Kyousuke was at the beginning. But having her hide her true romantic feelings was part of the setting, and so he struggled to bring out the charm of this hated heroine little by little over the course of the narrative. And then, as all these developments started adding up, the amount of people who came to like her increased, and that made the author happy.
Once this knot inside her is unstrung, her verbal lashings no longer carry the same edge, instead landing softly and feeling like playful banter. If early Kirino told you to go get hit by a bus you’d probably feel a chill down your spine, but when it comes from late Kirino you’d probably laugh and fire something back. On paper, she acts the same, but you know she doesn’t feel the same and her tsun side is almost now just habitual. And of course there are those moments that every tsundere fan lives for, when the clouds part and heaven casts its golden rays for that fleeting moment of dere.
Kirino’s tsun comes from a deep, dark place, but those moments where she manages to let her real feelings slip out are truly one of natures miracles.
Kyousuke may identify as a boring everyday highschool boy, but even before we find out that he used to be a passionate, driven child, he frequently lets slip more attitude that many main male characters who are outright TRYING to be interesting. This is especially true when it comes to Kirino, who can unlock his innate zeal. Whether it’s riding all across Tokyo on a publicly indecent loli bicycle just to get her to a concert on time, acting as a talent agent to help win her a rare figure prize from a cosplay competition, or publicly confessing his love for his sister, Kyousuke is an unstoppable force when it comes to her. It doesn’t just attest to his love for her, but also reveals his true nature.
These two spend so long fighting with each other and their own feelings that I couldn’t but root for them with full force. They deserve true love after all the false hatred. Kyousuke’s confession was a worthy moment, but I was more amazed at the quiet, understated scene later in the hotel room. It was just them talking, no screaming, no crying or running through the city – but they were finally talking honestly with each other! A touching moment of peace.
I could go on about the other characters, especially the wonderful Kuroneko, but by now I think I’ve played my hand: OreImo is not all that it appears, and most critics have taken it at face value. There’s far more depth, nuance and truth in this work than so many other critic darlings out there. The depth that is there is massaged to the surface by remarkable voice acting performances, and strong production values that perfectly express Kanzaki Hiiro’s superb character designs
Sure, there’s also plenty of dumb stuff in here, especially unnecessary harem elements, and it’s never going to be considered intellectual literature, but I do think it has a surprising amount of heart to it.
At the end of the day, there’s something about the gutsy and deceptively earnest way Tsukasa Fushimi pulled off his characters and relationships that makes you think ‘There’s no way my trashy otaku LN series can be this good‘.